The Writer and the Photographer

When I’m not writing (or cooking, or carting my kids somewhere, or doing one of a hundred other things that occupy the hours in a normal day) I am often outside with my camera, stalking that perfect image.  I’ve been a dedicated amateur photographer for about ten years now.  I find that photography relaxes me, while at the same time engaging a part of my brain that writing largely ignores.  To my mind, the key to taking good pictures is conveying emotion and even narrative without words, using only light and shape, texture and contour. I love the challenge, I love the simplicity of the task, and I love it as an excuse to be outside, away from my desk.

Not surprisingly, despite the contrasts with writing that I’ve just mentioned, I also find in photography parallels to the crafting of stories and novels, and valuable lessons that I can apply to my profession.  Hence this post.

Yesterday (I’m writing this on Sunday morning), I went food shopping with my daughter, who has her first good camera now and is learning photography.  We live some distance from the nearest supermarket, and I take a back way to get to the story that takes us through some lovely rural areas. While we were driving to the store we past one scene in particular that caught my photographic eye.  The canola fields are blooming here now — great, uninterrupted expanses of bright yellow flowers.  One such field had a huge oak in the middle of it, and backed up to the rising slope of the Cumberland Plateau, which is heavily forested with trees that are just beginning to leaf out.  It was beautiful, and I knew immediately that I wanted to photograph it.  I even explained to my daughter exactly the elements that caught my eye and the way I intended to compose the image.

This morning, I went back to the spot and shot my photos.

They came out well; a couple of them are quite lovely.  But I have to admit that the image did not translate to the camera quite as perfectly as I had imagined it would.  This is something that has happened to me previously: A couple of years ago, I went to a familiar spot to try to recreate a photo I’d taken some time before but on a less sophisticated camera.  That excursion yielded unexpected results.  I wasn’t able to recreate the photo, but I got several other photos of similar subjects that were far, far better.

And therein lies the lesson for writing.

We can’t always control our creativity. Sometimes the stories that we envision in our minds do not match exactly the stories that we eventually write.  And sometimes, we can be so determined to write a certain story a certain way that we fail to see alternative approaches that might make better use of the same narrative elements.

One of the things I love most about photography is the wonder of discovery that comes with each new foray into a visual environment, be it urban or wild, familiar or new.  I am always surprised at least once during the course of a shoot.  Elements of a photo will come together in some unexpected way and the resulting photo will often be one that I cherish above all the others I take on that given day.  That’s why on those days, like today, when I go in search of a specific, predetermined image, I’m sometimes disappointed by the result.  That sense of discovery, of spontaneity is missing.

Writing fiction is also a process of discovery. My favorite moments as a writer are those when one of my characters surprises me with a decision she makes or something she says. I outline my work and try to plan my projects, be they novels or short stories, but invariably something happens along the way that takes my narrative in a direction I did anticipate.  That’s okay. It’s good, in fact. It tells me that my story and the characters within it are as real as they can possibly be. Those moments when I am most likely to get in trouble with a story and follow a narrative thread into a plotting cul-de-sac, are those when I have ignored the choices my characters make, following instead a predetermined choice I imposed on the story from the outset.  Sure, an outline is predetermined.  In the same way, I’ll choose to shoot in black and white in an urban setting, or will rely on certain lenses in different natural settings.  But these are broader choices that still leave room for those acts of in-the-moment creativity. It’s when I deny myself even that level of spontaneity that my work suffers.

Lots of my writer friends engage in other creative pursuits when not writing — from dancing to jewelry-making, music to painting, photography to sculpting.  And I would imagine that they are able to draw lessons from one art form that have implications for the other.  For me it’s photography and writing, and while they satisfy very different creative impulses they also have a good deal in common.

What about you?  When you’re not creating stories do you create in another way?  Does one art form give you insights into the other?

David B. Coe



Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, writing life, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 6 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Wolf Lahti

    “Sometimes the stories that we envision in our minds do not match exactly the stories that we eventually write.”


  2. 2. Paul (@princejvstin)

    I suspect that the similarities between photography and writing is one reason why there is a noticeable overlap between the two hobbies/disciplines/creative endeavors. Some of the same tools, as you outline, apply.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Wolf, yeah, maybe I understated that just a little …

    Paul, I think you’re right. I do know a lot of writers who are into photography.

  4. 4. Justin Hebert

    I often draw and sketch when I run into brick walls. I have to moderate that pretty strictly, though, or it will just consume my time rather than provide a secondary outlet when the writing spigot gets stopped up.

    I sometimes will draw the characters I’m creating, but more often I find it is helpful to draw the objects they use; the weapons they fight with, the teacups they drink from, even common everyday objects can be especially helpful in unlocking who the character is.

    As you’ve probably guessed, relevant descriptions of those objects often make their way into the works themselves. Two birds, one stone.


  1. A Post About Writing and Photography | D.B. Jackson
  2. A Post About Writing and Photography | An Exchange of Words: David B. Coe's Weblog

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe ( is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (, and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



Browse our archives: